Two years ago I moved away from Greenwich Village. I write this blog to make myself feel better.

My romp through Tin Pan Alley

Everyone comes to New York with a dream. Armed with a copy of The Songwriters' Success Manual, I set out for the city in 1976 to sell my songs. I knocked on doors of music publishers whose addresses I found in the phone book, about fifty in the city at that time. I made the rounds with my reel-to-reel tapes and lead sheets . . . 
. . . and got listening appointments with RCA, United Artists, ATV and others. I came close--they listened to all three songs on my tapes--but the wide-ranging feedback was confusing ("it needs a stronger hook," "you're better at writing music," "you're better with lyrics"). What was I doing wrong? I stopped by ASCAP for advice and was told "You can't make a living writing songs. Go to college." I thought about it, told my parents, and after a year they made me go back to college.


The history of my life is the history of the struggle between an overwhelming urge to write and a combination of circumstances bent on keeping me from it.

--F Scott Fitzgerald




College courses in classical music didn't make me a better songwriter, but I never stopped asking myself, How did music publishers pick their songs? Irving Berlin, George Cohan, Jerome Kern and George Gershwin got their start as song pluggers with Tin Pan Alley publishers on 28th Street, the racket of piano-playing earning the street its name. I read somewhere they traveled along the rooftops and fire escapes of the Tin Pan Alley buildings to get from publisher to publisher. The music business in 1976 was very different--most performers wrote their own songs--but there was still a demand for hit singles for solo singers and jazz artists and "professional managers" hustled them. I saw a place for myself with music companies and sought out a job as a part-time floater at Warner Communications to make connections. What a place! College was stuffy, but at Warner I met music lovers who shared my passion for pop music and concerts.



Irving Berlin, "Alexander's Ragtime Band"
One summer I worked at Warner Bros. music publishing and saw how sheet music and songbooks were produced. I learned all my repertoire from sheet music and had been buying it for years at Schirmer's and CT and NJ music stores. So I loved seeing where it all came from. Staff arrangers transcribed bestselling records and voiced them for piano/vocal sheets and songbooks and school bands. I admired they could take it from tapes and notate it with ease. I knew I would never reach that level of musicianship, but they were happy to talk about the music they liked: big bands, jazz and their own projects. They expanded my horizons, but I didn't get to see how new songwriters were signed. The professional department, where it happened, was a small office on a separate floor with a very small studio for demos. Frankly, I don't think it was all that active. Warner Music was a big company. They acquired "catalogs" and publishing rights to songs and albums already climbing the charts.

How were new songs discovered? What did talent scouts listen for when they picked new songs? I had to get into a record company's A&R department, and if I couldn't get inside as a part-timer at Warner I would have to get there when I graduated. Those jobs were hard to get. More about my experiences in Part 2 to follow.

You may have heard that Tin Pan Alley is under threat of demolition. If you appreciate this special time and place in New York, here's a link to the Historic District Council's video about their efforts to save the remaining buildings on 28th Street. I hope you'll be moved to add your voice to the growing number of supporters. 

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